Some of my recent conversations with my friend Arthur had centered on his appreciation of the 19th-century writer John Ruskin. I had to admit to not knowing the first thing about him, so I asked Arthur if he could put together a sort of Cliff’s Notes summary of his work for me. As usual, he went above and beyond the call of duty, and since it’s been a while since I plundered one of his emails for material to raise the collective IQ of this here blog, I’ll post this one too rather than let it languish in my inbox:
Now you must always be prepared to read Greek legends as you trace threads through figures on a silken damask: the same thread runs through the web, but it makes part of different figures. Joined with other colors you hardly recognize it, and in different lights it is dark or light. Thus the Greek fables blend and cross curiously in different directions, till they knit themselves into an arabesque where sometimes you cannot tell black from purple, nor blue from emerald—they being all the truer for this, because the truths of emotion they represent are interwoven in the same way, but all the more difficult to read, and to explain in any order. Thus the Harpies, as they represent vain desire, are connected with the Sirens, who are the spirits of constant desire; so that it is difficult sometimes in early art to know which are meant, both being represented alike as birds with women’s heads; only the Sirens are the great constant desires—the infinite sicknesses of heart—which, rightly placed, give life, and wrongly placed, waste it away; so that there are two groups of Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is fatal. But there are no animating or saving Harpies; their nature is always vexing and full of weariness, and thus they are curiously connected with the whole group of legends about Tantalus.
Athena, the Queen of the Air, represents, among other things, one of the primordial elements of unspoilt nature as woven into the poetic imagination of the ancient Greeks; specifically, Athena as fresh air, both literally and figuratively:31. I. She is the air giving life and health to all animals.II. She is the air giving vegetative power to the earth.III. She is the air giving motion to the sea, and renderingnavigation possible.IV. She is the air nourishing artificial light, torch or lamplight;as opposed to that of the sun, on one hand, and of consuming*fire on the other.V. She is the air conveying vibration of sound.*****First, and chiefly, she is air as the spirit of life, giving vitality to the blood. Her psychic relation to the vital force in matter lies deeper, and we will examine it afterwards; but a great number of the most interesting passages in Homer regard her as flying over the earth in local and transitory strength, simply and merely the goddess of fresh air.******The sea-beach round this isle of ours is the frieze of our Parthenon; every wave that breaks on it thunders with Athena’s voice; nay, wherever you throw your window wide open in the morning, you let in Athena, as wisdom and fresh air at the same instant; and whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of right heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and, with the blood, into the thoughts of your brain.
…her name, Pallas, probably refers to the quivering or vibration of the air; and to its power, whether as vital force, or communicated wave, over every kind of matter, in giving it vibratory movement; first, and most intense, in the voice and throat of the bird, which is the air incarnate; and so descending through the various orders of animal life to the vibrating and semi-voluntary murmur of the insect; and, lower still, to the hiss or quiver of the tail of the half-lunged snake and deaf adder; all these, nevertheless, being wholly under the rule of Athena as representing either breath or vital nervous power; and, therefore, also, in their simplicity, the “oaten pipe and pastoral song,” which belong to her dominion over the asphodel meadows, and breathe on their banks of violets.Finally, is it not strange to think of the influence of this one power of Pallas in vibration (we shall see a singular mechanical energy of it presently in the serpent’s motion), in the voices of war and peace? How much of the repose, how much of the wrath, folly, and misery of men, has literally depended on this one power of the air; on the sound of the trumpet and of the bell, on the lark’s song, and the bee’s murmur!
64. Now we have two orders of animals to take some note of in connection with Athena, and one vast order of plants, which will illustrate this matter very sufficiently for us.The orders of animals are the serpent and the bird: the serpent, in which the breath or spirit is less than in any other creature, and the earth-power the greatest; the bird, in which the breath or spirit is more full than in any other creature, and the earth-power least.65. We will take the bird first. It is little more than a drift of the air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it,—is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.Also, in the throat of the bird is given the voice of the air. All that in the wind itself is weak, wild, useless in sweetness, is knit together in its song. As we may imagine the wild form of the bird’s wings, so the wild voice of the cloud into its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied, rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness, interpreting all intense passion through the soft spring nights, bursting into acclaim and rapture of choir at daybreak, or lisping and twittering among the boughs and hedges through heat of day, like little winds that only make the cowslip bells shake, and ruffle the petals of the wild rose.66. Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colors of the air; on these the gold of the cloud, that cannot be gathered by any covetousness; the rubies of the clouds, that are not the price of Athena, but are Athena; the vermillion of the cloud-bar, and the flame of the cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted blue of the deep wells of the sky,—all these, seized by the creating spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume; with wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand; even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between the stronger plumes,—seen, but too soft for touch.And so the Spirit of the Air is put into, and upon, this created form; and it becomes, through twenty centuries, the symbol of divine help, descending, as the Fire, to speak but as the Dove, to bless.67. Next, in the serpent we approach the source of a group of myths, world-wide, founded on great and common human instincts, respecting which I must note one or two points which bear intimately on all our subject. For it seems to me that the scholars who are at present occupied in interpretation of human myths have most of them forgotten that there are any such thing as natural myths, and that the dark sayings of men may be both difficult to read, and not always worth reading. And, indeed, all guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable ones. The dead hieroglyph may have meant this or that; the living hieroglyph means always the same; but remember, it is just as much a hieroglyph as the other; nay, more,—a “sacred or reserved sculpture,” a thing with an inner language. The serpent crest of the king’s crown, or of the god’s, on the pillars of Egypt, is a mystery, but the serpent itself, gliding past the pillar’s foot, is it less a mystery? Is there, indeed, no tongue, except the mute forked flash from its lips, in that running brook of horror on the ground?68. Why that horror? We all feel it, yet how imaginative it is, how disproportioned to the real strength of the creature! There is more poison in an ill-kept drain, in a pool of dish-washing at a cottage door, than in the deadliest asp of Nile. Every back yard which you look down into from the railway as it carries you out by Vauxhall or Deptford, holds its coiled serpent; all the walls of those ghastly suburbs are enclosures of tank temples for serpent worship; yet you feel no horror in looking down into them as you would if you saw the livid scales, and lifted head. There is more venom, mortal, inevitable, in a single word, sometimes, or in the gliding entrance of a wordless thought than ever “vanti Libia con sua rena.” But that horror is of the myth, not of the creature. There are myriads lower than this, and more loathsome, in the scale of being; the links between dead matter and animation drift everywhere unseen. But it is the strength of the base element that is so dreadful in the serpent; it is the very omnipotence of the earth. That rivulet of smooth silver, how does it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it, when it moves slowly. A wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward, and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and equal way, no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless, march of sequent rings, and spectral processions of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it, the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.* It scarcely breathes with its one lung (the other shriveled and abortive); it is passive to the sun and shade, and is cold or hot like a stone; yet “it can outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the zebra, outwrestle the athlete, and crush the tiger.”** It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth, of the entire earthly nature. As the bird is the clothed power of the air, so this is the clothed power of the dust; as the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, so this is the grasp and sting of death.